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Inhalants are a broad class of drugs, which is difficult to nail down or describe. People can turn just about any chemical vapor into an “inhalant” if they abuse it. While we might think of inhalants as a drug of choice for less-experienced drug addicts, the consequences of breathing in toxic fumes can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. Inhalants are often a drug of choice for teenagers too, which can make them particularly risky. Learn the signs, symptoms, and risks associated with inhalants.
History and Prevalence of Inhalant Addiction
We also think of inhalants as a relatively modern fad, but people have been inhaling vapors for centuries. In the modern era, inhalant abuse began most notably in the 1800s as nitrous oxide, ether, and chloroform gained popularity for their intoxicant properties. Today, solvent sniffing is a practice in which addicts abuse commercial products including paint thinners, nail polish removers, shoe polish, lighter fluid, spray paint, and just about anything else that can produce a sense of intoxication when inhaled.
The two most attractive properties of inhalants are a) their low cost, and b) their availability. Unlike most other addictive drugs, inhalants are most prevalent among those aged 12-17. Past year users in this age group are at a rate of 4.1%, higher than the rate of past-year use among all other age groups combined. The reason for this is likely that teenagers have less access to harder illicit drugs or alcohol. Substances like nail polish remover or paint thinner can easily be acquired by just about anybody over the counter and abused.
Outward Symptoms/Signs of Inhalant Addiction
Fortunately, inhalant abuse is relatively easy to spot, particularly in those engaging in this behavior often. Most people addicted to inhalants leave a trail of evidence a mile wide. Inhalant abusers may have paint on their faces, the smell of whatever it is they were huffing, leave behind bags full of solvents, or rags saturated with paint thinner or gasoline. They may also have large amounts of compressed air cans or nitrous oxide canisters.
The challenging part of identifying this addiction, however, is that most addicts are not chronic, heavy users. Most inhalant addicts are teenagers experimenting with intoxication who may leave little trace of their illicit behavior. Additionally, the list of substances that can be inhaled is incredibly long, which makes it difficult to pinpoint whether a person is using them for this purpose or not. For example, an ordinary teenager may have nail polish remover, whipped cream, or glue in their possession and not necessarily be using them for inhalant purposes.
The symptoms of inhalant abuse are very similar to alcohol, which can be an aid in its identification. Slurred speech, disorientation, nausea, and dilated pupils are all symptoms of inhalant abuse. While these are similar to alcohol, the person will not smell of beer or hard alcohol, allowing a parent or friend to make the distinction. Many symptoms of inhalant abuse are extremely dangerous, depending upon the substance used to get high. If the person is inhaling dangerous chemicals, they are putting themselves at risk of unconsciousness, coma, and even death.
Typical Cost of Inhalant Addiction
It’s nearly impossible to calculate the cost of inhalant addictions. Inhalants are just a loose collection of substances that can produce intoxication when inhaled. As such, there is no real way to pinpoint how much an inhalant habit could cost a person, but it is usually extremely inexpensive. Most people who abuse inhalants are teenagers or those living in extreme poverty, for whom inhalants are the only viable option in terms of substance abuse.
Inhalants also have no verifiable link to crime. The high afforded by inhaling gases is typically short-lived and nearly incapacitating. People who are high on inhalants are usually extremely disoriented and giddy and there is no connection between this sort of intoxication and criminal behavior.
While it’s not financially prohibitive to engage in inhalant abuse, the medical cost can be quite high. When an addict is using inhalants, they are essentially replacing air in their lungs with chemicals that are, at best, useless, and, at worst, extremely dangerous. During the process of “huffing” the gases, the person is depriving the body of the oxygen it needs and replacing it with dangerous chemicals. This can produce a wide variety of physical ailments, ranging from serious and immediate to mild and long-term.
Effect of Inhalant Addiction on the Addict
Determining the impact of inhalant addiction depends heavily upon the specific substances a person is using to get high. For a person who is inhaling nitrites, for example, they will suffer dilated blood vessels, increased heart rate, and a sensation of heat and excitement. They will appear flushed, get dizzy, and likely suffer headaches. Solvents like aerosol and other gases produce belligerence, apathy, impaired judgment, and functioning, in addition to nausea and vomiting. In particularly high doses, users will also experience confusion and delirium.
Many people don’t take inhalant abuse seriously. It often begins as a relatively light-hearted way to get high without the risks associated with “hard” drugs. The problem is that many users report a strong urge to continue abusing the inhalants, particularly after going on a multi-day binge.
As this craving leads to continued use, people addicted to inhalants can experience serious physical side effects. For one thing, inhalant abuse can lead directly to death via several mechanisms. Asphyxiation, suffocation, convulsions, seizures, coma, choking, and fatal injury (i.e. motor vehicle fatalities suffered under the influence) are all risks directly linked with inhalant abuse.
The brain and nervous system are also hit hard by inhalant abuse. Frequent exposure to toxic chemicals can lead to neurological conditions that are similar, clinically, to diseases like multiple sclerosis. Other risks include damage to areas of the brain responsible for cognition, movement, vision, and hearing. This cognitive damage can range from mild impairment to severe dementia.
Inhalants also damage the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Depending upon the substance inhaled, these drugs can damage just about every organ in the body! Some of this damage may be reversible if the abuser is removed from the substance, but in other cases, the damage may be persistent.
Permanence/Relapse of Inhalant Addiction
Unfortunately, inhalant abuse is not particularly well-researched. While inhalant abuse is very common, with some studies ranking it the 9th most common substance abuse in the country, it is significantly less common than other addictive drugs. Additionally, most inhalant abuse occurs in teenagers who typically use inhalants as a “gateway drug” to other drugs. By the time these addicts arrive in recovery, they are typically no longer using inhalants at all.
As a result, there are few statistics regarding permanence and relapse among inhalant addicts. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that relapse on inhalants, particularly in a chronic user, is extremely likely. Given the ease with which an addict might acquire “huffable” substances, there is a strong indication that addicts should be supervised during the detox and withdrawal phase. Additionally, an addict who has since moved on to stronger substances may relapse on inhalants once they’ve gotten sober.
Detox for Inhalant Addiction
While a full withdrawal episode from inhalant abuse is rare, it is still possible. When a person has abused inhalants for a particularly long time, their withdrawal episode typically resembles that of alcohol or benzodiazepines. As such, it requires a definite supervised, medical setting.
Symptoms of inhalant withdrawal are similar to drugs like benzos and alcohol. Symptoms can include sleep disturbance, irritability, jitters, profuse sweating, nausea, vomiting, elevated heart rate, and hallucinations. Depending upon the length of inhalant abuse, these withdrawal symptoms can persist for as long as one month after abstinence.
No medications have yet been found which aid in the recovery of inhalant withdrawal symptoms. Again, research in this area is extremely limited. In most cases, the symptoms, if they occur at all, will be short-lived and uncomfortable, at worst. In a medical setting, an addict may be prescribed medication which can help lower the heart rate, alleviate anxiety, and aid with sleep.
Physical and Mental Difficulty of Recovery for Inhalant Addiction
Arguably the most difficult and dangerous element of inhalant addiction is the lack of information on the topic. There are, as yet, no 12-step programs specifically addressing inhalant abuse and the recovery community, in general, is comparably uninformed regarding this addiction. As a result, most recovery protocols for inhalant abuse include a combination of recovery including therapy, 12-step education, relapse prevention, cognitive behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy.
Because inhalant abuse is so common among younger people, recovery programs specifically designed for teenagers are ideal in its treatment. Programs like therapeutic boarding schools and wilderness programs are especially effective solutions if the addict in question is between the ages of 12-17. These programs incorporate many of the above therapies in addition to teenager-specific programming including education and hands-on experiential programs9.
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